It is a very striking and beautiful image, but it is not a neutron beam, as one might assume. Rather, this image shows the high-energy ion beam we use to create neutron radiation. What you are seeing in the above image is actually superheated plasma from an ion source. At such high temperatures, the plasma ion source, comprised of deuterium ions, can create a stunningly ethereal bluish-violet glow under certain circumstances, which we can capture on camera.

Unlike the ion source beam, actual neutron beams, though, aren’t much to look at. Like most forms of radiation, neutron radiation like that in a neutron beam isn’t visible to the naked eye under any circumstances, and so it isn’t quite so easy to get an awe-inspiring, captivating look at neutron radiation (and therefore, neutron beams).

Your typical colorful photographs of stars, galaxies, and nebulae have been altered and color-corrected to depict X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet light, radio waves, and other forms of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum within the range of our eyesight, since only a very tiny fraction of the light astronomical objects give off can actually be seen with our eyes.

Since neutrons aren’t a part of the EM spectrum, the approach we use to colorize photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t quite work. A neutron beam is invisible, though that doesn’t make it any less potent.

What Is a Neutron Beam?

A cyclotron used to produce neutron beams for radiation therapy at the University of Washington uses a collimator to focus and limit the beam. Photo by Ilkiwaner

A neutron beam is a focused stream of neutrons. However, neutron emitters tend to release neutrons in all directions instead of just in a focused neutron beam, so special technology has to be employed to wrangle the neutrons into shape. By using neutron-absorbing material around the emission source and providing a single aperture, a fraction of the neutron output can be emitted in a single direction, which means it can be aimed at a target. These focused neutron beams are much more useful for industrial and materials research applications.

For many uses for radiation, the radioactive emissions of your source need to be corralled into a neat and orderly beamline—the neater and more orderly the neutron beam, the better. In radiography, for example, the more disorderly your radioactive output is, the blurrier and more indistinct the resulting image will be. In this example, the neutrons traveling outward need to be traveling as parallel to each other as possible. These neutron beam techniques require more special neutron-absorbing and focusing technology.

Our Technology to Focus Neutrons without a Nuclear Reactor

Creating focused neutron beams is actually quite challenging, even compared to creating the neutrons themselves. In order to focus radiation into a beam and carefully manage the neutron beam divergence to ensure maximum effectiveness, we use a device called a collimator, or beam limiter.

The neutron radiography system used by our sister company Phoenix at its Imaging Center uses collimators of our own design to ensure detailed, crisp neutron images meeting ASTM Category I quality standards

A collimator narrows and focuses a beam of particles and waves. Collimators work as a filter for radiation, allowing parallel streams to pass through while blocking streams that approach at an angle. Although only a trickle of the total radiation produced will make it through, this is the price you pay for a crisper and sharper—and thus, in certain applications, more useful—beamline.

Because in these situations, only the focused fraction of the total neutron output is actually used for the neutron beams, the total neutron output of a neutron source ceases to be a useful metric. Instead, the important metrics are neutron flux, which measures how many neutron particles pass through a given area (neutrons per square centimeter) and neutron fluence, which measures how many neutron particles pass through a given area over a certain length of time (neutrons per square centimeter per second).

For focusing neutron radiation, Phoenix LLC’s Imaging Center uses a collimator of our own design made out of proprietary neutron-absorbing material. Only parallel streams of neutrons, or at least as parallel as possible, pass through the collimator without being impeded. How parallel the beamline is depends on the ratio between the collimator’s length and the diameter of its aperture.

Our Technology to Moderate Neutron Temperature

One important quality of a neutron beam is its temperature—how much energy the neutrons traveling in that neutron beam have.

The temperature of a given free neutron depends on the nature of the fusion reaction it was born from; different neutron sources will produce different results. For example, a deuterium-deuterium or D-D fusion reaction produces free neutrons with average energies of around 2.5 MeV (mega-electron-volts). A deuterium-tritium or D-T fusion reaction produces neutrons of around 14 MeV.

Neutron Beam Techniques

Different temperatures of neutron beams are useful for different applications because how much energy the neutron has can influence how it reacts with materials. For example, thermal neutrons, which have energies of around 0.025 eV (about ten million times less energy than DD neutrons!), can have a larger neutron absorption cross-section than neutrons that have more energy. Fast neutrons, which have temperatures between one and twenty MeV, are critical for jump-starting fission reactions due to their higher energies. There are various categories of different temperatures of neutrons ranging from cold (anything colder than thermal neutrons) to ultrafast (neutrons moving at relativistic speeds), but fast and thermal neutrons are some of the most important for industrial applications.

In order to turn the fast 2.5 MeV neutrons coming out of a DD neutron generator into thermal neutrons, we employ a device called a moderator to slow the neutrons down. A moderator consists of neutron-slowing material. In many moderator setups, the material used is heavy water. Heavy water molecules are just like normal water molecules, except with deuterium atoms in place of hydrogen. One property of heavy water is that when neutrons in the neutron beam collide with the deuterium within, they lose energy. This decreases their temperature, and after countless collisions, the neutrons in the neutron beam exit the moderator at the proper temperature.

What Are Neutron Beams Used For?

Neutron beams have a wide variety of applications in industrial testing and materials research. Neutron radiation has unique properties compared to other forms of radiation, which create unique opportunities for use in many fields ranging from destructive and non-destructive testing to fusion energy research to even archaeology and art history.

A comparison of a 100kV X-Ray, 190 kV X-ray, and neutron image of Fuel Injectors.

Neutron Beams and NDT (Non-Destructive Testing) Neutron Radiography/Neutron Imaging

Neutron beams are especially useful in advanced industrial inspection, most notably for neutron radiography, or neutron imaging. A collimated neutron beamline can be used to create radiographic neutron imaging of an object’s internal structure, just as can be done with a beam of X-rays or gamma rays. Because neutrons have special properties compared to electromagnetic radiation and can more easily pass through certain heavy elements than light elements, neutron radiography provides a unique perspective compared to X-ray and gamma radiography, and neutron imaging can be used to identify defects and flaws that other forms of testing might miss.

Neutron radiography can be done with thermal or fast neutrons, which influence the neutron absorbing or scattering cross section of various materials’ atomic nuclei. Traditionally, researchers performed neutron imaging using a research nuclear reactor as the neutron source, but as nuclear reactors are more scarce with each passing decade (especially research reactors), SHINE Technologies has developed other neutron source options as an alternative to a nuclear reactor for neutron imaging.

Neutron Beams and NAA (Neutron Activation Analysis) for Materials Research

One particularly wide range of applications for neutron beam technology has to do with a physical phenomenon known as neutron activation that is important in materials research.

When a neutron beam passes through test object material, the test object material’s atoms could absorb some of the neutrons, gain extra energy, and then shed this extra energy by releasing a mild burst of radiation.

By analyzing the radiation produced by neutron activation, you can actually determine a material’s composition very precisely. For this reason, neutron activation analysis sees use not only as a method in industrial non-destructive testing and materials research, but also in areas such as art history, archaeology, geology, and agriculture. Neutron beams can even be used to detect explosives and narcotics!

Other Applications of Neutron Beams: NDT & Neutron Scattering

In addition to NDT methods such as neutron imaging/neutron radiography, neutron beams can also be employed for destructive testing methods, such as radiation hardening and survivability testing. These tests involve bombarding materials with ionizing radiation, such as neutron radiation, in order to see how much radiation the materials can withstand before physical flaws begin to manifest. Radiation exposure in environments like outer space and nuclear reactors can cause materials, machines, and instruments to become brittler or lose tensile strength; for example, and electronics can fail to operate properly due to the radiation damage to their materials and components.

Neutron scattering is another powerful research application of neutron beams. In neutron scattering, researchers explore how atoms are arranged in a material by firing a neutron beam through it and observing the way the beam diffracts in transit through the material.

Neutron scattering uses cold or ultracold neutrons, which have temperatures far lower than thermal neutrons and can easily be trapped or scattered within materials by the atomic nuclei. Researchers frequently use neutron scattering experiments in materials science when studying the structure and dynamics of hydrogen-rich compounds and biological materials. Another type of neutron scattering, called inelastic neutron scattering, allows researchers to study atomic and molecular phenomena, such as atomic movement and excitation.

Learn more about SHINE’s fusion neutron generator technology